- 2Samuel 23:1-7 and Psalm 132:1-12, (13-18) (or Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 & Psalm 93)
- Revelation 1:4b-8
- John 18:33-37
What kind of kingdom? What kind of king?
At this time of the year the lectionaries invite us to explore and reflect upon the theme of Jesus and the kingdom of God. It is sometimes taken for granted that the Bible has a well-developed and consistent idea about the kingdom of God, and that this theme which was so central in the teachings of Jesus has its roots in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.
First Reading: A davidic model?
The NT theme of “kingdom of God” can also get tangled up with the ancient Jewish idea of a Davidic messiah, a royal prince descended from the line of David and coming at the end of time to rescue God’s people.
This week’s readings provide several strands that come from this rich theological thread:
- 2Sam 23:1-7 (RCL first reading) extols David as “the anointed (Messiah) of God” and someone who rules over the people justly.
- Its companion text, Psalm 132, celebrates the memory of David as the faithful servant of Yahweh, who promises David that he will always have a son ruling over God’s people from Jerusalem.
- The first reading for ECUSA and RC lectionaries (Daniel 7:9-10,13-14) is an apocalyptic vision narrative in which the seer has access to the divine court above the sky. God (“the Ancient One”) takes his seat on a throne of fire as thousands of spiritual courtiers stand in attendance. The people of God are imagined as a figure in human form (unlike the monstrous beasts representing the non-Jewish empires in earlier verses of Dan 7) who comes into the very presence of God, riding on the clouds like some ancient deity, to receive “dominion and glory and kingship” in an empire that will never fade or decline. This is clearly a dream of future greatness for the people as a whole (not as individuals) and on a scale that no human empire has ever been able to achieve and sustain. The kingdom, however, is the empire of God’s covenant people, not the empire or commonwealth of God that Jesus proclaimed.
- The psalm chosen as a reflection on that reading (Psalm 93) celebrates the kingship of God, not the great human empire of God’s people in Daniel 7. This slippage between human empire and the kingdom of God tends to confuse our grasp of the biblical traditions, and to blend separate strands into a single undifferentiated — and unbiblical — hybrid.
Second Reading: The true witness
All three major Western lectionaries draw on the Apocalypse of John for the second reading. Here — in the imagination of an early Christian visionary — Jesus has taken the place of God as the one seated on the throne. The titles ascribed to Jesus tell us a great deal about how some 1C Christians understood Jesus: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. Notice how that triple set of titles relates to the liturgical acclamation so widely used in contemporary liturgies:
the faithful witness
= Christ has died
= historical Jesus, a Jewish radical religious figure executed by Rome
the firstborn of the dead
= Christ is risen
= Jesus as “risen Lord,” a continuing presence in Christian experience
the ruler of the kings of the earth
= Christ will come again
= Jesus as agent of divine judgment on the “powers that be”
In this Christian re-interpretation of the symbols and themes from Daniel 7, we find that the concept of a collective empire for God’s holy ones survives in the idea that Christians have been created as a kingdom of priests who serve the God of Jesus. In a neat reversal of the “one in human form” who traveled to God on the clouds in Daniel 7, Jesus is now expected to travel on the clouds as he comes from God to judge the nations.
Gospel Reading: A different kind of kingdom
John 18 provides the classic scene in which Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the Jewish king?” Jesus’ reply, as imagined by the writer of John’s Gospel, is to claim a realm that is of a different order of reality than either Roman empire or Jewish commonwealth:
My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom were from this world,
my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. …
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
Kingdom of God?
The phrase “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” is a hallmark of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, but (surprisingly to many people) is not found in the Old Testament. We get close to the idea of an eschatological “kingdom of God” in the late post-exilic texts. (Zechariah 14:9 reads, “And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one.”) While ancient rabbinic texts interpreted this verse as a reference to the inauguration of God’s kingdom, the precise phrase is not found here — or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible.
Yahweh, the God of ancient Israel, is often described as a king. Psalm 93 is a good example of that practice. It also seems likely that in many of the new year festival, Yahweh was acclaimed as king with the refrain, “Yahweh reigns!” There are also some references to the people of Israel as the nation over whom God rules. The prophetic resistance to monarchy may reflect ancient religious traditions that could not accept a human ruler having such divine prerogatives.
In “DOING and UNDOING the WORD: Jesus and the Dialectics of Christology.” [Forum 3.2 (Fall 2000) 321-56], Mahlon Smith comments on the role of divine kingship in ancient Israel:
(3) Autocracy vs. autonomy. The basic connotation of the concept of basileia (“kingdom”) is the office and authority of a basileus (“king”): i.e., one who is in absolute control of a particular social situation. No imperium extends any further than its emperor’s ability “to command” (imperare). That is why nations in antiquity had no recognized fixed territorial boundaries. Anyone who exercised enough autonomous authority could at any time challenge the autocratic claims of the strongest of kings and establish his (or, at least in a few cases, her) own “kingdom.” It made no sense in antiquity for someone to recognize a “kingdom” where someone was not currently in control. Thus, ancient Israelites could maintain their independence from domination by human despots only by insisting that their “god” — the power that set them free of domination by other humans — was still the real “king” even in situations where others temporarily asserted suzerainty. The prophetic “visions” of the majesty of YHWH enthroned on high were formulated for specific political situations in which foreign tyrants — Assyria’s Tiglath-Pilesar in the case of Isaiah; Babylon’s Nebuchadrezzar in the case of Ezekiel — threatened to compromise or crush Jewish cultural and political independence. Current affairs might not provide visible evidence of YHWH’s dominion. But even for the most devout Yahwist, a “god” whose current “kingdom” was only in heaven would be neither really King nor truly God. YHWH’s “kingdom” was still effective on earth, incarnate in anyone who maintained a fifth column resistance to the autocratic claims of current tyrants who tried to enslave the Jewish spirit and make Jews abandon or forget their ideal of freedom.
The empire of God?
The Jesus Seminar has generated some controversy as a result of its decision to translate basileia tou theou (“kingdom of God”) as “God’s imperial rule” or the “empire of God.” That controversy is not a bad thing if it provokes people to think beyond the familiar English expression in search of its original meaning for both Jesus and his listeners.
Darryl Schmidt, a key member of the translation team for the Jesus Seminar publications, describes the challenge posed by this central theological term:
Among the phrases most crucial to Mark’s narrative, none is more central, yet hotly debated, than Jesus’ use of “the basileia of God.” This expression encompasses the activity of God as sovereign ruler, the sphere over which God rules, and the nature of the “rulership” that characterizes all of that. It involves various aspects of “empire,” “sovereignty,” “rule,” “reign,” “domain,” and “kingship.”
… The challenge for translators is to find a way to capture these various dimensions in a set of related expressions in English capable of functioning at several levels. … basileia must be translated differently according to its narrative context. When the image is a realm to enter or belong to, “God’s domain” is used: “It is better for you to enter God’s domain one-eyed than to be thrown into Gehenna with both eyes” (9:47); “You are far from God’s domain” (12:34). When the focus is the exercise of God’s sovereignty, “God’s imperial rule” was chosen: “God’s imperial rule is closing in” (1:15); “Some of those standing here won’t ever taste death before they see God’s imperial rule set in with power!” (9:1). When basileia is not related to “God,” other translations are “government” (3:24), “kingdom” (11:10), and “empire” (13:8). [The Gospel of Mark. 1990:33f]
A kingdom of nobodies?
The immediate social and political reality in which Jesus made such distinctive use of basileia to theou was the all-pervasive presence of the Roman imperium or, in Greek, basileia. The basileia of God that featured in the parables and aphorisms was not a time-honored religious metaphor, but a self-conscious alternative social reality to the Roman Empire.
This divine commonwealth was both a counter image and a parody of the harsh realities of everyday life in the Roman world.
In the essay cited earlier, Mahlon Smith adds to our appreciation of the subversive quality of the basileia in Jesus’ preaching. Smith has described the divine commonwealth as a “kingless kingdom,” a “beggars’ opera” and an “unsupervised kindergarten” in which there are no carers on duty:
(1) Kingless kingdom. The language of hierarchy and social subservience is part of the baggage that Jesus inherited from a cultural environment that he, like any other historical individual, neither invented nor chose. Absolute rulers called “king,” “emperor” or a wide range of other titles that expressed the idea of totalitarian control were an accepted political fact of life in the ancient Near East. The rule — not just the reign — of kings was the rule rather than the exception. Emerging within that world early Israel had established a constitution that was a noble social experiment: a society with no single human ruler. Israelites’ independence from subjugation to surrounding kingdoms was to be guaranteed by the principle that they recognize no one as “lord” except the power that had liberated them from servitude to Egypt, an empire which — in legend at least — had been a model of totalitarian power with a king who was worshipped as a divine incarnation. Early Israel’s dialectical resistance to such a social system was embedded in refusal to represent its “god” in the form of any human or other creature. Instead of an idol, the artifact originally at the center of its worship represented an empty throne. While neither that social experiment nor Israelite independence was eventually able to withstand external or internal pressures, regular ritual reminders imbedded in the minds of at least some Israelites an idealized memory of a system in which there was no king, no master, no lord except that invisible power, or “god,” that liberates people from subjection to any social hierarchy. Jesus’ pronouncements about God’s kingdom being the property of paupers (ptóchoi) and pre-schoolers (paidia) presuppose precisely such a social system.
(2) Beggars opera. To call ptóchoi (lit. “beggars”) “fortunate” (makarios) is an absolute contradiction in terms in a world where at least some are wealthy. But the obverse side of that makarism is Jesus’ pronouncement that a camel can squeeze through a needle’s eye more easily than a wealthy person can get into God’s “kingdom” (basileia). Crossan has called this a “kingdom of nobodies.” It is perhaps more accurately styled a society of have-nots. If the imperium of God is the treasure or precious gem that one must sell everything to possess, then only those who have literally nothing can ever hope to possess it. In a society where everyone is a beggar, no one is superior to anyone else. The only “Lord” is the benign Providence that gives every creature its daily “bread.” That is a role Jesus never claimed for himself. Rather than pose as anyone’s “lord,” Jesus identified himself with the homeless. Like them he did not even have a place to sleep, much less a throne. Still, he reminds his fellow Jewish peasants who bear the burden of imperial and temple taxes that it is their good fortune that the God of their tradition is one who frees people from slavery to wealth, yet feeds and clothes them as he does the least of the wild creatures. A world where everyone is a hobo but no one need worry where the next meal is coming from is truly a beggar’s opera. Its basic plot is that the only prince is the pauper. In such a “kingdom” everyone is equal and free; and any tramp is king of the road. Gospel narratives indicate that Jesus put this way of life into practice. So, historically speaking, the only people who would be in an appropriate social position to call him “lord” would be those few who, barefoot, penniless, and without provisions abandon(ed) all their property to follow his lead. Anyone who imagines him to display a different persona after Easter — one with royal possessions and power — is (or was) worshipping a different Jesus, an unhistorical hypostasis.
(4) Unsupervised kindergarten. Born into a world where Israelite ideals were difficult to maintain in the face of the pervasiveness of Greek culture and Roman military and economic imperialism, any Jew other than Jesus might have mimicked and elaborated the ancient prophetic descriptions of YHWH’s hierarchical heavenly domain. And several did. But there is no reliable evidence that the historical Jesus chose this tack. Rather, he paradoxically depicted God’s basileia as the possession of paidia — i.e., children under the age of seven – and insisted that only those who mimicked paidia had access to it. Preachers and theologians have long romanticized or allegorized this pronouncement. But no one who has ever lived with a child in this age bracket or tried to teach kindergarten could honestly maintain that what Jesus really meant was that people should be innocent or absolutely dependent or obedient or display unqualified trust. If there is anything a pre-schooler, whatever its culture, is not, it is all of the above. So, if Jesus meant any of these, he chose the wrong metaphor. Pre-schoolers are notoriously and innately independent- minded and hard to control. That is precisely why classic pedagogy stressed the need for strict discipline. But Jesus’ pronouncement leaves no space in God’s basileia for any pedagogue other than the benign Papa (Abba) who provides his offspring’s daily nourishment and tolerates the bad along with the good. Instead of depicting this Parent as a strict disciplinarian dedicated to reforming his children, Jesus portrayed him as one who celebrates the homecoming of the wayward child who had lost everything he had given him. Jesus, for his part, did not volunteer to act as supervisor of such urchins. Instead of posing as a teacher, Jesus thanked his Abba for revealing to infants (népia) — i.e., children who are not ready for any instruction — what sages per se cannot see. Infants are not passive subjects; they demand attention and do what they — not any parents — want. So, if the synoptic anecdote that portrays Jesus as identifying himself as a paidion is a Markan fiction, at least it is what R. W. Funk terms a “true fiction”: a story that accurately illustrates the logic and attitude of Jesus himself. The historical Jesus was a Jewish Peter Pan, who warned his fellow homeless “boys” (and “girls”?) against acting like educated — supposedly grown-up — scholars who seek personal recognition and vie for places of honor for themselves. Thus, the only people who were (or are) in an appropriate position to proclaim Jesus as their “master” (kyrios) and themselves as his “students” (mathétai) would be those who follow(ed) his example of childish autonomy, even if that meant defying parents and older siblings and defaulting on the most basic honor children owe their natural fathers: a decent burial. Crossan is certainly correct, therefore, to characterize Jesus as a “rebel with a cause.” For, far from demanding that others recognize him as their master, Jesus encouraged youngsters to assert their own autonomy vis-à-vis even domestic autocratic hierarchy. He did not offer to save them from the consequences.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.